This afternoon, as I finished my lunch I was doing some reading. And I clicked on a link that I probably wouldn’t have clicked on a year ago. It was to read a New York Times story, “Seeing Past the Slave to Study the Person.” The story was about Annette Gordon-Reed’s new book, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.
It wouldn’t have interested me all that much before. But last October, on one of my visits to Virginia, warriormare and I drove to Charlottesville and toured Monticello. And because of that connection to place, my interest was piqued.
Slavery isn’t a topic that really comes up all that often when studying history in Canadian schools. And I think that part of that is a tendancy to think about it as “an American problem,” and maybe (if we’re honest) to look down our noses at. We were the country at the end of the Underground Railroad, after all. So we Canadians can be a little too complacent and ignore the racial prejudice existed (and exists) here, too.
But there is something about being in a place that can connect you to its history. One of my favorite activites to do in Ottawa is to just go up and walk on Parliament Hill, to look up at the Peace Tower and the copper roofs or to wander around the grounds of Rideau Hall. Interestingly, for somebody who prefers to be indoors rather than out, I find that it’s the outdoor spaces that tend to have a more special quality about them.
I think part of that is that there’s an openness to the outdoors. Everything isn’t walled off and “you must enter here and exit here,” “to get from point A to point B, you must travel through this hallway,” etc. It’s probably why I feel some of the same when I enter a large cathedral.
But there’s something else that comes to mind as I remember that cool October afternoon, with a hint of showers struggling to make themselves felt. And that was the ground: the well-worn paths, the gardens, and looking up towards the peak of Montalto. There is a very real connection to those who have walked before us, when we make our footprints on the same soil.
I wonder how much of that goes through kids as they play in a sandbox. Even if they can’t express it, are they feeling a connection to others when they play in that dirt? To the kid who was there that morning during recess perhaps or to Mom or Dad when they play in the sandbox at Grandma’s house? I wonder.
Now, don’t feel that I’m somebody wandering around with my head on such wonderful things all the time…I’m usually far more preoccupied with my own thoughts and concerns…but when I started thinking about the new connection I felt with this book that involved Monticello…it seemed surprisingly obvious.
Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. [Exod 3.5]
How much more of a connection Moses must have felt, taking off his sandals and standing with both feet against that holy ground.
I think bare feet is too drastic for most of the time, but there are other ways of “grounding” ourselves. They can be just as much of a challenge to find time for. Whether it’s a breathing exercise or a visit to a thin place, I know I need to put more effort into finding those places, those experiences that ground me, so that the rush and stress of everyday life doesn’t keep me from truly living.